Irom Sharmila: the 10-year fast against the AFSPA

Special series on Irom Sharmila–Part-1

By Anjuman Ara Begum,,

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Irom Sharmila personifies struggle to protect civil and human rights. Here is Independent India’s unmatched tireless selfless movement for the noble cause. As she completes 10 years of her fast against excessive powers to khaki, presents a 3-part series on her struggle and life – Editor

On November 2, 2000, ten people were killed when a paramilitary force opened fire at a bus-stop near Malom in Manipur. Most of those killed were women and students. The firing was followed by a brutal combat operation also. A young lady, too shocked at the anarchical act of the state agencies, decided to begin a fast unto death demanding the repeal of the Act responsible for such brutality on the part of the state – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Thus began the fight of Irom Sharmila Chanu, the Iron Lady from Manipur whose fast completed 10 years this year.

The troops of 8th Assam Rifles were deployed in Malom to counter the ‘insurgent’ attack in the area. Those killed at the Malom massacre were L Sana Devi (60), G Bap Sharma (50), O Sanayaima (50), K Bijoy (35) A Raghumani (34), S Robinson Singh (27), Ksh Inaocha (23), T Shantikumar (19), S Prakash Singh (18) and S Chandramani (17).

Though Sharmila began her marathon fast in protest, the investigation into the Malom massacre has still not yet been completed even after 10 years. Following a directive of the Gauhati High Court, Imphal Bench, in 2004 and 2005, the District and Session’s Judge is conducting an enquiry into the incident. On January 7, 2010, a team of the court led by Th Surbala, the District and Session’s Judge, Manipur East, conducted a spot inquiry at Malom and investigation is on into the facts and circumstances leading to the firing incidents.

Irom Sharmila

Since November 2, 2000, Sharmila has been arrested under section 309 of IPC which punishes attempted suicide by a one-year imprisonment. She is released every year to be arrested again. A compartment in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital has become her virtual nest, where the poet in Sharmila pens her verses. She turned down many requests to end her fast and expressed her firmness to continue her fast till the Act is repealed. She has been awarded with many laurels for her nonviolent contribution towards the human rights movement in north east India.

In a telephonic interview Sharmila’s brother Singhajit shared his memories of his sister’s childhood. He said, ‘Up to 10 years she was somewhat different from other children. She was a pure vegetarian. After passing class X, she started a training of yoga, nature cure and the holy Gita. She had only three-four friends. She liked to be alone listening to the radio, writing poems, shorthand writing etc. She was different. In October 2000, retired Justice Suresh from Bombay lead a commission and inquired about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Sharmila attended it as an individual activist. It was completed on 25th October, 2000. The Malom massacre took place on November 2. Ten people were killed near the airport in Malom. Sharmila began her fast after hearing the sound of the massacre on that Thursday. She informed some of her friends about her fast and then went to her mother to ask her permission for the fast. Mother gave her blessings and asked Sharmila to do whatever she could. She spent the night with her friends. On 5th, she went to the Malom Massacre site and sat there continuing her fast. In the early morning on 6th November, police arrested her and kept her in the custody. On November 11, 2000, I went to Sajowa jail and told her that we would fight together but she should give up her fasting. She replied, ‘Please come to encourage me and don’t come to discourage me’. At that moment, I promised her that I will be with her in her struggle. After returning from the jail, I resigned my job as an agriculture officer in a leading NGO called Citizen’s Volunteer Training Centre where I was drawing a handsome salary. I resigned to devote my time for Sharmila’s struggle and since then I am with her.’

When asked about the reaction of the state agencies when Sharmila decided to fast, Singhajit informed that the family members were threatened by the state agencies and were urged to sign in a letter for handing over Sharmila to the family. ‘But we believe that since Sharmila started her fast she is no more my sister, rather she is the sister of whole Manipur. We cannot sign in any paper asking to hand her over to our family’ he said.

Singhajit was emotional to answer his mother’s reaction over the whole incident. He said, ‘Our mother said that she feels happy when she gets the news about Sharmila’s achievement. But she feels sad whenever she remembers about her daughter. She passes several nights in tears. She believes that she will die after Sharmila’s death. This is her wish. She requested before the media that the central and state governments may decide to withdraw the AFSPA for at least 10 days so that she can meet her daughter before her death. Since Sharmila started her fast, the mother and daughter have never met as meeting may discourage Sharmila from continuing her struggle. Until and unless the mission is accomplished, the mother and daughter will never meet.’

Sharmila was honoured by the prestigious Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007 by the May 18 Memorial Foundation in South Korea. The Prize was instituted to celebrate the spirit of the May 18 Gwangju Uprising by recognizing individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed in promoting and advancing human rights, democracy and peace in their work. In September this year, she was awarded the Rabindranath Tagore Peace award carrying Rs 51 lakhs, a gold medal and a citation. The Prize was presented to Sharmila by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) on September 11 at the JN Hospital.

To mark the completion of 10 years of Sharmila’s fast, the Just Peace Foundation (JPF), Manipur, has organized several programmes in Imphal under the name the Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace which will be held from 2 to 6 November 2010, in Imphal, Manipur. JPF informed that the Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace will be a celebration of the indefatigable spirit of humanity; a celebration of peace, justice and harmony; a celebration of the traditions and cultures of the North-east and its people; and a celebration of the Peoples’ Movement that has been going on for the last ten years.

Special series on Irom Sharmila–Part-2

Special series on Irom Sharmila–Part-3